It can be said that Sam Harris is being lambasted for being an atheist that supports gun rights. Atheism is typically the domain of the “left”, and in some cases the hardcore “left”, but he is certainly not alone among atheists. Several other prominent atheists also support gun rights, including Seth Andrews (“The Thinking Atheist“) and Stefan Molyneux.
Harris has been doing his best to address his critics with a “FAQ on Violence“. He’s doing a great job with it too, but his response to one particular point is rather incomplete. The question to which he’s responding has to do with his apparent contradiction of supporting having guns around the house for personal protection, but not supporting carrying them out in public.
His first paragraph in response is spot on:
Where self-defense is concerned, there are important differences between being in your home (or, perhaps, your place of business) and being out in public. It takes very little to establish that you acted in self-defense inside your own home. Domestic disputes aside, we are probably talking about a situation in which a person, who very likely has a criminal history, has broken into your house. In public, however, the question of which party was the aggressor is often open to interpretation. Indeed, you might even be confused about the situation yourself and wind up using lethal force inappropriately.
This is one thing approached very carefully in a concealed carry course and in discussions regarding concealed carry. Caution is always going to be your friend. And when carrying a firearm, your motives and actions require extra scrutiny, because if you don’t give them extra scrutiny, a Court of Law most certainly will.
This becomes especially true when we’re talking about a situation where you were not involved from the outset, as Harris describes in his next paragraph:
Imagine that you are carrying a gun for your own protection. You are trained to use it, and you have resolved to draw it only in a true emergency. While out one night, you see two men kicking a downed man on the sidewalk. Hoping to save a life, you draw your weapon and order the attackers to stop (generally speaking, you are allowed to defend another person whose life appears to be in danger in the same way that you would defend yourself). These hoodlums ignore you—do they even hear you?—and they have now succeeded in kicking their victim unconscious. You worry that the next blow could prove fatal. Having no other obvious recourse, and believing that you have a duty to act in defense of innocent life, you shoot one of the men in the chest.
If you are someone walking upon this situation, your first move must be to catch the perpetrator’s attention. If words aren’t doing the job, you need to use something else, such as a flashlight. Warning shots are not an option here.
Because you’re witnessing an altercation, you can have your firearm ready to draw, but I wouldn’t walk into it with my gun out. My cell phone would certainly be out, or my flashlight, but not my gun. If you walk into this situation with your gun out, you might scare off a person who might actually have been the good guy who managed to somehow get the upper hand and subdue his attacker. Having your flashlight on him, especially at night, gives you a chance to see more clearly what is going on.
Or the suspected perpetrator could flee upon seeing you. In that situation, you handle what you’ve come upon as best as possible, starting with a 911 call to relay your location and what you have seen and know.
But it is one thing that was at least stressed in my concealed carry class: information is always going to be key. Without information you could make the kind of hasty decision that Harris portrays, and end up shooting someone who was actually the intended victim.
But the fact that you were carrying a gun in gave you the ability—and, it seemed, the duty—to intervene immediately and at a safe distance.
And this is a feeling, sense, or what have you that a CCW must fight. If you happen upon a situation like what Harris described, you have to fight the urge to use your firearm. You might feel you have a moral duty to act, but you don’t have a legal obligation to do so, and as Harris points out, sometimes exercising your moral duty can lead you to make decisions that can cost you much more:
Ordinary civilians who blunder into situations in which they use lethal force inappropriately can wind up going to prison for a long time. The much-invoked notion “It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it” (or, worse, “It’s better to be judged by twelve than carried by six”) does not cover all the eventualities here. Carrying a weapon in public can lead even smart and well-intentioned people to behave in stupid and unethical ways.
So for the most part, Harris is relatively spot on. But where is he incomplete? He completely blows by the idea of using your firearm for self defense out in public.
As such, when it comes to self-defense, much of what Harris has said in his FAQ and in a previous article on guns (here) and another on self defense (here) applies just as well as it does to home defense. Even when you are outside and accosted by another individual, the kind that you see and just instantly know something’s not going right, escape must be your goal, and the use of your firearm a last resort. Your firearm can aid in that escape, but escape must be your goal — escape so you can summon the police.
There’s numerous discussions all over the place online about what to do in situations where you are the potential victim and you are armed, along with what to do if you discharged your firearm in self defense. But I think it was a little short-sighted of him to not even touch on self defense when out in public in his FAQ on violence. So Sam, if you happen across my article, I ask that you address the deficiency.
You might want to check the numbering of your items, as well.